Executive Council reverses itself, approves $22-million vaccine grant

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Nov. 10—CONCORD — The Republican-led Executive Council reversed itself Wednesday and approved $22.5 million in federal immunization contracts for expanded delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine throughout the state.

The vote was 4-0, with Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, abstaining by voting "present" on the issue.

Gatsas was upset that other Republican councilors had circulated a nonbinding resolution about vaccine mandates in order to break the logjam over the contracts.

"How are we as a council doing things that we shouldn't be doing?" Gatsas said, adding that the resolution was a policy document that belonged in the Legislature and not before the council that approves government contracts.

A month ago, all Republicans on the council had voted against two contracts totaling $27 million.

Gov. Chris Sununu submitted the new contract as a late item with the lengthy, nonbinding resolution that put the council and governor on record against the Biden vaccine mandate.

"Thanks to a bipartisan majority of the Executive Council for working with my administration to revisit and craft a solution to accept these critical public health federal funds, we are moving full steam ahead," Sununu said in a statement after the vote.

Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, said the resolution was critical to getting his support because it expresses "many voices" against vaccine mandates and their impact on the economy.

The resolution expressly said accepting the grant didn't bind the state to enforcing any vaccine mandates.

"We felt we needed to push back," Kenney said. "We feel that a resolution, in conjunction with this contract, would address the voices that we felt were not heard."

Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, said the resolution was a "meaningless" document meant to provide "political cover" for Republican councilors. She opposed it, but endorsed the item to move the contract forward.

"I will put public health over politics every single time," Warmington said.

Attorney General John Formella said the resolution, while not binding, has some impact.

"I think this is a powerful statement because the governor and council is the head of the executive branch of government," Formella said.

Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, said the action wasn't about politics, but protecting those in the public who object to being forced to take a vaccine or risk losing their jobs.

"This is to New Hampshire government on the record as an employee's right to refuse a COVID vaccination; they have the right to have a religious and medical exception," Wheeler said.

Rebuild NH, a leading group opposed to the vaccine mandates, condemned the same Republican councilors they singled out for praise last month.

"Turncoats Dave Wheeler and Joe Kenney deserve to be booted from office for their unpublicized and deceitful vote today to give the DHHS money to fund pro-COVID-vaxx propaganda and coercion," the group said in a statement.

"Some pointless, meaningless, toothless resolution that says they don't support mandates while literally funding the department that is working against the will of the Legislature to support mandates is akin to stabbing someone in the back while giving him or her a kiss. SHAME on them!"

Shibinette kept pushing

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette kept her promise to keep bringing back the contracts, which will end up doing virtually all of the work in proposed $27 million contracts the council shot down last month.

Sununu supported this strategy.

The request approved by the council included the hiring of 13 full-time and temporary staffers to build out the state's immunization registry and other vaccine activities over the next few years.

This grant would come from the federal Centers for Disease Control. The contract looked very similar to the contracts the council rejected last month as a few hundred opponents to the vaccine mandates looked on at the meeting in Concord.

Nine citizens were arrested for protesting inside the Police Standards and Training Council where the council met.

Some Republican legislative leaders have objected to using the COVID-19 grant monies to add more full-time staff for HHS.

The proposal now goes to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee for its review. After the council rejected the earlier contracts, the fiscal panel turned them aside as well.

The resolution also stated the "governor and council" support changing the Immunization Registry to an "opt-in system."

Currently, parents have to affirmatively opt out of having their family's vaccine records on the registry.

An opt-in system would require the state to get permission in advance from families before putting their information on the registry.

Republican lawmakers have already offered proposed legislation in 2022 to make that change.

Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, said the decision of Sununu and Formella to join two lawsuits against Biden mandates played a role in her decision to change her mind about the grant.

"Public health depends on economic health," Stevens said.

Sununu and AG Formella earlier had assured the council that the original $27 million in grants from the CDC had no strings attached to it.

Two weeks ago, the council approved nearly $5 million in spending for the programs from the federal American Rescue Plan Act law.

Last month, Warmington was the only councilor who supported the $27 million grant request.

The all-Democratic congressional delegation sharply criticized the council's earlier action. On Wednesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., held another news conference at Coos County Family Health Services in Berlin on the topic.


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